Called to Serve: What the Board Owes the CEO

By John Pearson

Note: This is No. 25 in a series of blogs featuring wisdom from the 91-page gem by Max De Pree, <Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board.

Wow! I must apologize now to blog readers—because in a few years, should I venture backwards and read these 25 or more blogs, I’ll grimace with angst. “Yikes! What possessed me to think that Max De Pree’s succinct 91 pages needed any more color commentary? Yikes, again.”

Case in point: his brilliant summary (pages 82 and 83) on “Mandate”—one of four categories of things the board owes the president (“or the conductor, or the pastor, or the manager”): Mandate, Trust, Space, and Care.

On Mandate, he writes, “Remember, we are committed to communicate lavishly.” And then this:
“Our mandate should always include a mission statement and a strategy, both of which derive clearly from who we intend to be.”
• “Some folks like the idea of a job outline. For leaders, I much prefer a statement of expectations. A job outline can become a kind of box that tends to limit the leader’s imagination. We surely don’t want that.”

De Pree cautions that there be no ambiguity between “the statement of expectations to the promise of what will be measured.” You’ll recall from the last blog, that De Pree warns, “It’s so easy to fall into the trap of measuring only what’s easy to measure.”

In working with nonprofit ministries and churches, I find that mission statements are often noble, sometimes breath-taking, even enduring and endearing. Yet…strategy? Shoddily articulated. Often written and quickly filed away. Rarely—derived from a fork-in-the-road holy moment on our knees.

If I could rewind the videotape for my own leadership and my consulting work with clients, I would invest less time on the mission statement—and more time on the strategy.

In their important book, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, co-authors A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin write, “Every industry has tools and practices that become widespread and generic. Some organizations define strategy as benchmarking against competition and then doing the same set of activities but more effectively. Sameness isn’t strategy. It is a recipe for mediocrity.

So…to Max De Pree’s wisdom urging leaders to connect mission with strategy, I would humbly add “and sameness isn’t strategy.” My opinion—“sameness” is one of the Top-5 Sins of Strategy Development in ministry organizations—which is strange, because God has designed leaders and team members with very unique spiritual gifts, strengths, social styles and passion. Thus, it would lead us to discern that our unique organizations and unique people would also have unique strategies. Amen?

BOARD EXERCISE: Take out a blank piece of paper. Question 1: What is our ministry’s strategy? Question 2: Is our strategy crystal clear to our CEO (Yes or No)? You have five minutes. Go.


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.